R.I.P., Larry Gelbart (1928-2009)

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On this date in 2009, one of entertainment’s best writers of all time, Larry Gelbart, left us at the too-young age of 81.

If you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve no doubt enjoyed at least one of his many TV, movie, or theatrical endeavors. He wrote or co-wrote, among countless other projects:

  • the plays A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumMastergate (a little-known but on-target political satire), Sly Fox (a very funny reworking of Ben Jonson’s Volpone), and City of Angels.
  • the movies Oh, God! and Tootsie.
  • his contributions to “Caesar’s Hour,” the TV follow-up to Sid Caesar’s famous variety series “Your Show of Shows.” Gelbart’s fellow writers included some guys named Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon.

But the work for which Gelbart is best remembered is his writing for the TV version of the movie M*A*S*H (which version he co-created with long-time TV writer and producer Gene Reynolds).

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TV’s “M*A*S*H”, like the movie, was set in an Army camp in the middle of the Korean War. But if you re-view its first season, you’ll see that the series began as more of a military-hijinx comedy along the lines of “The Phil Silvers Show” or “Hogan’s Heroes,” with only a smattering of commentary about war itself. That might be why the show was on the verge of cancellation throughout its entire first season.

Somewhere along the way, Gelbart, Reynolds, and the cast seem to have decided to create the first sitcom that actually told us “War is hell,” and television was never the same after that. The show’s conscience and backbone was Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, superbly portrayed by Alan Alda. (If some of Alda’s line deliveries seemed Groucho Marx-like, that might have been because Gelbart wrote for one of Groucho’s radio shows in the 1940’s.)

Deaths of prominent TV characters are now de rigeur. But if you weren’t there for its first broadcast in 1975, you can’t imagine the shock that millions of viewers (including yours truly) felt upon seeing the closing scene of Season 3’s finale. Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) was to have been dismissed from the Army and sent home for good. But then Radar (Gary Burghoff) chokingly read a telegram announcing that Blake was killed when the helicopter taking him back to civilian life was shot down over the Sea of Japan.

(Gelbart famously kept that last scene under wraps until it was time to film it. When Gelbart called the cast together to shoot that scene, he opened an envelope containing the script. Nobody but Gelbart and Reynolds knew what was in the envelope. Burghoff yelled, “I don’t want to see it! You’ve got pictures of dead babies in there!”)

Anyway, it was at that point when “M*A*S*H” established a different direction for itself and never looked back, and TV was richer for it. But a burned-out Gelbart left the series at the end of Season 4. His final contribution to the series was the memorable “Interview” episode, filmed documentary-style in black-and-white, in which cast members were asked questions as their characters and they improvised responses in kind.

Being the entertainment nerd I was, I started reading TV and movie credits in-depth when I was a teenager. That was when I discovered what an incredible writer Gelbart was, and he’s been a hero of mine ever since.

In 1990, during a vacation trip in New York City, my wife and I attended the Broadway musical City of Angels, for which Gelbart wrote the book. It was a delightful play that depicted both a film-noir movie (via on-stage special effects) and how the movie paralleled the life of its angst-ridden writer.

At the play’s intermission, I went off to use the restroom while my wife had a drink at the bar. After the play, my wife and I had dinner at the Russian Tea Room. While waiting for our dinner to be served, my wife was perusing the play’s program. Suddenly, she pointed to a photo in the program and said, “Hey, that guy was talking to me at the bar during intermission. He asked me what I thought of the play.” I checked out the photo. It was of Larry Gelbart.

(I seem to have a knack for just missing a connection with my pop-culture favorites. I’ll have to tell you my Adrienne Barbeau story some time.)

I often think that any creative act a person performs — acting, writing, painting — is really just another version of carving one’s initials into a tree to show everyone, “I was here.” We should all have such elaborate and memorable carvings as those of Larry Gelbart.

 

 

 

 

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